The port of Bruges lies eight miles inland from the Belgian coast, served by a canal that opens to the sea at Ostend and Zeebrugge. In the bitter spring of 1918 Bruges Harbor teemed with German destroyers and U-boats that regularly came out to continue their years-long effort to starve Britain into surrender.
To counter these forays, Rear Adm. Roger Keyes, in command of the Dover Patrol, came up with a plan whose audacity verged on the suicidal. He would have several of his own cruisers sunk in precisely chosen spots, where their hulks would bottle up the German fleet.
The British went in on April 22. The whole coast was heavily defended, but at Zeebrugge things were made even more difficult by the presence of a long mole, a massive seawall hooking out into the sea and now thickly planted with German artillery. This British marines and sailors would storm and hold for long enough to allow the cruisers to run the batteries and scuttle themselves.
The fight was brief but unimaginably fierce, as is suggested by the fact that the men who took part in the attack received more decorations for bravery than Britain has ever given for a single action before or since. (This feat of derring-do—so swift and spectacular, especially when viewed against the cruel, slow grind of the Western Front—has been largely forgotten because it did little good; two of the three captains managed to drop their ships in the right places, but in the end the port stayed open.)
When it came time for the sailors and marines to withdraw from the shrapnel-scoured mole, they hesitated. In Zeebrugge, his fine 1958 account of the raid, Barrie Pitt writes: “There seems to be a deep atavistic streak in the British nature which will not allow its warriors to leave their dead on the field: no matter what the price demanded in life and limb, they bring their dead home… . Zeebrugge provided several almost unbelievable examples of this. Of the entire convoy strength, numbering nearly seventeen hundred men [and having suffered 700 casualties], only 49 failed to return to Dover… . This is possibly absurd and probably wasteful: but it has grandeur.”
I thought about Pitt’s book for the first time in years when Rachel Louise Snyder submitted her story that appears in this issue. Our subscribers first encountered Snyder in 1998, when she wrote about her visit to the strange museum that stands on the site of the My Lai massacre. Then she reappeared last April, rattling a thousand miles down the remnants of what was once one of the most important roads in the world, the Camino Real. With the possible exception of Gen. James Gavin, Snyder is the most intrepid contributor we’ve ever had.
Now she joins us again from Vietnam, not in the rice-growing land around My Lai but camping high in the A Shau Valley, a dangerous Eden of glossy foliage and deadly snakes, with a group whose work combines forensic science, anthropology, diplomacy, and the defusing of live ammunition. Their complex project was born nearly a century and a half ago in the mind of, and launched by the enormous determination of, a single woman in Washington, D.C. Snyder went on to visit her recently rediscovered headquarters (no snakes there, but I’ll bet—it being summer then—just as humid).
What Snyder is reporting on is the repatriation of people who died fighting for our country, in wars popular and unpopular, stretching back to the days of Lee and Grant. The highly skilled professionals working in the Vietnamese highlands—and under the waters of Charleston Harbor—are seeking at best a few gray shards of mortality. But they pursue these with all their heart and with the muscle of $100 million of government money a year.
Is this out of proportion to what they bring home? Possibly, as Pitt suggests, the men who died on the Zeebrugge mole trying to bring home comrades who themselves had already died weren’t behaving very wisely. America’s project to retrieve her dead may seem to some extravagant, and perhaps even wrongheaded. But it has grandeur.